Tuesday, December 06, 2016

Jill's Fur Coats - Writing Class

The Smithsonian magazine fell open at this essay when I picked it off the pile of reading material.

"I picked up the button and sniffed it. I held it in my palm, recalling the prickle of leopard skin at my nape as I smoked a joint, the Hail Mary pass I missed seeing because I was counting the rosettes on my muff, the pillbox at the graveside, the swing of the spotted jacket as its wearer dragged a sackful of tin cans to the curb for the war effort. I thought of the determined young bride in the long belted coat and of the handsome leopard, transformed over and over, that had faithfully accompanied us through loss, and confusion, and growing up, and growing old."
("Changing Spots" by Edith Pearlman, Smithsonian Magazine, April 2002. )

It was April 2002 and I was sitting in a lawyer's office waiting room. My mother, Jill, had died a month earlier; the estate lawyer and my sister, also a lawyer, were reviewing my mother's estate, speaking legalese, a language unknown to me.  Grieving had taken a toll; we were both tired and numb but eager to get the paperwork done so we could close out the house in Winnipeg and deal with mother's personal belongings. Always a difficult task when one's parents die, this was worse than usual as we both lived 2500 miles away, in California.

The nostalgic Smithsonian essay seemed written for me at that moment. Immediately, memories of my mother's fur coats flooded into my consciousness.
My mother in her sheared beaver fur with me

While Edith's (the essayist) mother's leopard skin coat, turned into a jacket, then a collar, then a hat, muff, pillow and finally a button, my mother's sheared beaver and muskrat, intact as full-length coats, were hanging in the basement of her house, zipped into plastic bags, choking on mothball effluent, destined never to see the light of day again. When Jill was alive, in late autumn, the gloomy cupboard was opened and out came the coats, but no amount of airing could completely eradicate the whiff. Anywhere you went in our city, particularly on crowded buses, "Eau de Mothball" was the parfum du jour.
All through Jill's life, her coats remained un-remodeled—coats which reached down to her boot tops, with sleeves that covered her fingertips. I can remember her commenting about this critical tailoring detail; sleeves too short could ruin the look of a coat, according to Jill. The coats weighed a ton and women slouched along under the weight—but they were warm and necessary in the Winnipeg winters where temperatures sometimes reached -40 degrees F. Unbelievably, there are times in Winnipeg, jokingly known as Winterpeg, when the temperature is as cold as the surface of Mars! And that's not factoring in the wind chill effect which can make the temperature feel 20 or 30 degrees colder. Brrrrrrrr.

When you were invited into someone’s house in the winter for a party or social gathering, the  coats were piled on the bed in the master bedroom, creating a mountain of fur just asking a kid to dive in. And dive we did, rolling around in the softness, little peltless animals that we were, awed by the sensuous warmth of what was once a beaver, a seal or a mink. Little did we know in those days of innocence, when there seemed to be too much of everything, not too little, that soon we’d be reviled for wearing skins, humiliated in public, ink thrown over the coats.

Preparing to go out in the winter, Jill would stand in our small foyer and watching herself in a mirror, carefully wrap a silk scarf over her shoulders. After the coat was on, she'd look again in the mirror, adjust the scarf and fix her hair. Once satisfied, she'd be ready to go out the door. The scarf protected her neck from chafing under the weight of the coat and protected the coat from body oil from hair or skin. My mother had a mirror in every room and never passed one without taking a look. Eilleen and I would laugh about it and oddly, we went the other way and rarely looked at ourselves. Jill applied make-up everyday and always looked good in my memory. How shocked she'd be to know she has a daughter, me, for whom "dressed up" in retirement, is donning the set of free sweats bestowed upon me by Emirates Airlines during our one blow-out extravaganza first class flight to Dubai.

My sister and I having dealt with everything else, finally confronted the problem of what to do with the nostalgia-laden coats. We tried them on in Mom's living room; laughing about the finger-tip sleeves and crying as we added her hats and jewelry and mugged in her mirror. I recalled feeling the soft sheared beaver against my face as a child sitting in her lap or walking next to her holding her hand. Memories whispered to us each time we turned up a collar, felt inside the pockets, fingered the buttons. As we struggled, my wonderful friend, Linda, suggested we have legacy Teddy Bears made out of the skins. "Jilly Bears" were created—all three are now in the hands of my niece to pass down to the girls in the family.

Time races along and people are sadly, so easily forgotten. A decade passes and even people you love intensely, even your mother, fades from memory and eventually disappears from consciousness like so much smoke in the air. The bears, now the keeper of Jill’s memory are no doubt in a closet somewhere on a top shelf; but one day a great or great granddaughter will accidentally feel the soft fur while looking for a hat or a purse and stumble onto one of the JIlly Bears. I hope she’ll ask,  “Who was Jill?”

1 comment:

  1. the photo completes your wonderful story. Love the Jillybear.